UK Government promises first ‘net-zero’ transatlantic flight in 2023
The UK Government has pledged to work with the aviation industry to deliver the world’s first net-zero-certified transatlantic flight next year, using a combination of alternative fuels and offsetting to mitigate emissions.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps unveiled the ambition today (14 May) after a meeting with executive decision-makers at airlines, fuel producers and aircraft manufacturers in the US this week. He said that the flight will “demonstrate the vital role that sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) can play in decarbonising aviation”.
The flight will be powered using 100% SAF, with no conventional jet fuel in the mix. The Department for Transport (DfT) has asked the industry to prioritise the use of SAFs made using waste cooking oil and from household waste, as SAFs made using virgin biofuels can be detrimental in terms of land-use.
Currently, international regulations limit the level of SAF in blends to 50%. Flights can only be powered by blends exceeding 50% if the Civil Aviation Authority deems the aircraft suitable for a higher proportion. The DfT and industry will work to obtain this certification; Rolls-Royce has stated that it has already tested large, commercial aero engines using 100% SAF successfully.
SAFs purport to generate lifecycle emissions at levels significantly lower than conventional jet fuel. The DfT is forecasting a reduction of 70-80% in this case. To ensure that the transatlantic flight is net-zero, the DfT will work with the aviation industry to offset residual emissions.
A Department spokesperson told edie: “The Government will not prescribe the greenhouse gas removal approach to be utilised. Rather, it is anticipated that industry will make the decision based on a variety of factors such as innovation, availability, cost and time.”
Common offsetting approaches include financing nature restoration, financing the transition to renewable electricity, accelerating the uptake of cleaner cooking fuels in developing regions and financing nature protection. Offsetting using man-made carbon capture technologies is in its relative infancy, as there are not an abundance of large-scale projects in operation yet.
An approach to be expected
The UK Government’s approach to decarbonising aviation is broadly in line with that of industry body the UK Sustainable Aviation coalition, which is prioritising efficient planes with SAF use. Residual emissions can then be addressed using offsetting.
In terms of SAF supply, the DfT has asked the industry to collaborate to bring at least three commercial SAF production plants online in the UK by 2025. It has partnered with LanzaTech, Velocys and Philipps 66 to help deliver this ambition, through its Jet Zero Council.
The DfT is also mulling a SAF mandate. Its proposals involve requirements for jet fuel producers to ensure that at least 10% of their production annually is SAF by 2030, rising to 75% by 2050.
Many green groups have urged the Government to take a more diversified approach to achieving its net-zero targets for aviation, which are set at 2040 for airport operations and domestic flights, and 2050 for international flights. Concerns have been expressed that the industry and the Government are not giving enough focus to electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft which, while they will take longer to commercialise, may well result in far lower lifecycle emissions.
The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) most optimistic forecast for the use of SAF in the UK’s aviation industry is for it to cover 7% of fuel supply in 2030. With this in mind, and with electric and hydrogen technologies for large planes still years from maturity, the CCC has recommended that the Government caps airport expansion and limits the growth in passenger numbers. The Conservative Party has, to date, been staunchly against this approach – as have most large businesses in the sector. Shapps has stated that SAF offers a pathway to “guilt-free” flights.
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